This is a tale of two cities.
Two hockey teams. Two embarrassing seasons. Two fractured dressing rooms. Two (and soon to be three) coaching changes. Zero playoff wins.
And two players, the undisputed and unquestioned leaders of their respective teams, who apparently don't deserve an ounce of blame.
In Toronto, the Maple Leafs have just suffered through a third straight season without a playoff berth. The team is a mess, from ownership through management, down to the lame duck coach and (especially) the can't-win-when-it-matters lineup.
But fans and media agree: You can't blame Mats Sundin.
The occasionally feisty Toronto media regularly writes adoring fluff pieces about Sundin's leadership. When a critical piece does appear, such as Steve Simmons' recent and relatively mild swipe, Leaf fans react with outrage.
You can questions his teammates or his coach, and even (every once in a while) his play. But on one point, there's unanimous agreement: You simply can not question Sundin's leadership.
It's clear that the Leafs dressing room is a mess. A group of cozy veterans refuse to waive no-trade clauses, apparently perfectly satisfied with perpetual losing. Kyle Wellwood is handed the second line center's job, and responds with a slothful offseason. Jason Blake follows a $20 million contract with an embarrassing season, then gripes about his playing time. Players young and old have mastered the art of whining and moaning their way through loss after loss, all the while spouting empty excuses about injuries or hot goalies or bad luck.
But the man everyone agrees is the team's leader gets a free pass. He's a great captain. Beyond reproach. Pay no attention to the flaming wreckage behind the curtain.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, the Senators have completed a season that may have been even more pitiful than Toronto's, if only because there were actually some expectations.
The Senators are a team in turmoil these days. The dressing room in fractured, with several young stars with big money contracts who seem more interested in living the good life than in winning hockey games. Players are late for practice, teammates fight on the ice, big money free agent signings all but beg for a chance to leave town, and as the season went on the team's stars made it clear that a full effort every night was just too much to ask.
But again, the unquestioned leader doesn't have to take a drop of the blame. Sens fans, while eager to pick apart the rest of the roster, refuse to hear a bad word about Daniel Alfredsson. Meanwhile, the media is ready to deify him.
Don Brennan all but wrote Alfie a love note, even as the Senators stumbled to an embarassing sweep. "Stop the questions" ordered Bruce Garrioch in his season wrapup, awarding Alfredsson an A+. Even Erin Nicks, usually one of the Ottawa media's few reasonable voices, used her weekly newspaper column to insist that the captain is above criticism.
Alfredsson's early return from an apparent torn MCL was certainly courageous, and worthy of the praise that the adoring Ottawa media heaped on it. But it's not unfair to point out that the so-called miracle comeback was utterly ineffective.
The night of the captain's emotional return also saw the Sens lose battles all night long, Chris Neil take three selfish penalties, and Jason Spezza quit on a backcheck on the Penguin's insurance goal. Imagine what the night would have been like without Alfredsson's aura of leadership lighting the way.
Sundin and Alfredsson may not be the cause of their teams' problems. Both are classy veterans who shine on the ice and keep their noses clean off it. Neither has had so much as a whiff of scandal or controversy. Both are clearly their team's best players, and are popular fan favorites.
But the fact remains that both are also the leaders of teams in turmoil, presiding over rotten dressing rooms populated by losers and quitters. All the fan worship in the world can't change the facts.
How many icebergs can a ship hit before the captain takes some of the blame?
Monday, April 21, 2008
This is a tale of two cities.